Alison Winter, historian of science, 1965-2016

Editor’s note: A memorial service for Alison Winter will be held Nov. 2 at 4 p.m. in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel

Alison Winter, a historian of science and medicine whose book on memory won the University of Chicago Press’s top honor, died Wednesday of a brain tumor. She was 50 years old.

Winter, AB’87, was a professor of history whose research often focused in areas of science and medicine that were unorthodox and less traveled. She explored how 19th-century mesmerism catalyzed efforts to define and demarcate science in Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain and the cultural and scientific history of human understanding of memory in Memory: Fragments of a Modern History, which won the UChicago Press’s Gordon J. Laing Prize in 2014.

She was dedicated to supporting the next generation of scholars.Prof. Robert Richards

Winter taught undergraduates in the history of medicine, film and gender studies, guided doctoral students in their dissertations, and mentored postdoctoral fellows at the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics. Students described her as a generous critic and strong advocate. Even after becoming ill, Winter continued to co-teach an undergraduate seminar in history of science via video chat – first from home and later from the hospital.

“She was dedicated to supporting the next generation of scholars,” said Robert Richards, the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Science and Medicine. “She loved finding a wedge in an intellectual exchange and pushing it. But you could never get mad at her. She always had a sly smile.”

Winter first arrived at UChicago in 1983 as an undergraduate. Richards said Winter’s father, who taught mathematics at the University of Michigan, wanted her to major in science. She was interested in English literature. The compromise was the history of science, which quickly became Winter’s passion.

Winter received a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Cambridge. It was there she met her husband Adrian Johns, who is the Allan Grant Maclear Professor of History at UChicago.

Winter’s dissertation on mesmerism became her first book Mesmerized, which the UChicago Press published in 1998. Alex Owen writing in the journal Victorian Studies described it as a tour de force that requires “a reevaluation of precisely what constituted ‘center’ and ‘margin’ during a period in which many Victorian intellectuals and public figures experimented with mesmerism.”

After Cambridge, Winter taught at the California Institute of Technology before returning to UChicago in 2001.

Winter was awarded fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim, Andrew W. Mellon and National Science foundations, contributing to the research for Memory. In the book, she explores how scientists grope for metaphors to explain such an elusive subject, and how those metaphors evolved to reflect changing technology—from memory as a filing cabinet to a reel of film available for playback.

Doctoral students of Winter said she had a unique ability to balance criticism and encouragement, asking key questions to guide research rather than direct it. Caitjan Gainty, AM’05, PhD’12, remembers pulling up rugs with Winter at her home in Hyde Park, discussing future intellectual projects and talking about Winter’s fascination with a light-therapy enthusiast who once owned the property.

“She had confidence in me as a scholar before I even understood what it meant to do that kind of work,” said Gainty, lecturer in the history of science, technology and medicine at King’s College London.

Winter is survived by Johns and their four children, David, Lizzie, Zoe, and Benjamin; her mother, Judy Swartz, and stepfathers David Ballou and Fred Swartz; her father, David Winter, and stepmother, Michele Weipert-Winter; and her brother, Jonathan Ballou.

A memorial service for Winter is planned for Autumn Quarter.